Sowing Good Seeds

There are times when life seems to be getting rather busy, although not necessarily in a bad way. Recently the Lovely Wife and I are suffering what in football parlance is fixture crash, as lots of entirely separate things, booked over the period of many months or indeed not planned at all, move towards reach other in a way that makes you think, ‘can we actually fit this in?’ and ‘even if that is the case, will we be standing at the end of it?’

When we were in our twenties, a couple of big music gigs in quick success in quick succession were probably not an issue – first due to energy that you have at the time and possibly because frankly we would not have been able to afford it. Now, the latter is less of a problem but the former energy well has ebbed somewhat (although we are now enjoying the joy of being able to stay over in hotels for some events which is hugely energizing when you know you do not have to rely on the dodgy last train home if the band is particularly enthusiastic to threaten its curfew time – usually some of the best parts of a gig.

Despite these two gigs being hugely in contrast with one another, the reason for mentioning this is that in both there were moments that made me feel a little better with the universe, albeit briefly. And this was in the way that music can be a force for positive messages/protest message again what maybe we see around us at the current moment that makes us feel, at best, uncomfortable.

First – positive. The Lovely Wife was probably in the day the bigger fan of 80s duo Tears for Fears. I came to them a little later. The gig we went to this week was delayed from last May due to health reasons in the band (hence the unplanned proximity to another gig, more of later). The gig was seated (although bless him, the first thing Kurt Smith did when coming on was to exhort people to get out of their seats) and what followed was a rather intense set of hits that was hugely enjoyable to the 40+ (at least) year old crowd.  Intense, may be a very personal experience as somehow I had managed to get seats four rows from the front and it felt at times that we were being examined by the band to see whether we knew all the words.

It has never been my favourite song of theirs but on the night ‘Sowing the Seeds of Love’ made probably the biggest impression – at least when sung pretty much in your face. The anthemic commend to be better to one another struck a real chord with me; a song very much needed again today where what is being sown by many is anything but love.

Fast forward to Sunday night and a very different band and audience. The band was Bastille, the audience mostly under 30 (and predominantly female, which was great to see the band as while we were at the back this time generally we were as tall if not taller than most of the rest of the crowd, a rare treat for standing gigs). Most of the band’s input, delivered in high energy and to uproarious chorus singalongs was more about love, loss and despair – but front man Dan Smith got his political comment in as well at one point aimed firmly at the rise of the extreme (and less extreme perhaps, but just as insidious) Right wing politics and sung out against intolerance. And again, I felt it was right. These days most biting commentary comes from comedians, but they are preaching often to converted liberal (small l) audience. Music though can punch through that and have a wider appeal and perhaps reach those that otherwise may never listen to the voice of tolerance. The mainstream music industry seems to have gotten out of the habit of sticking their necks out and expressing a potentially controversial, possibly unpopular opinion. I’d like to see that change, personally.

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Landmark-ing

Recently, the Lovely Wife and I had the pleasure of a long weekend staying in the Banqueting House on the National Trust’s Gibside Estate in the North East. The building was saved from dereliction and vandalism by the Landmark Trust, an organisation that I very much respect and support. They own or have long leases on properties up and down the country ranging from the extremely compact (i.e. cosy even for a couple) to some larger castles and houses that sleep 20 or more.

There are a number of reasons we like staying in what are often quite odd and unusual holiday cottages. One of these is that some of them are, indeed, quite odd. For example, The Pigsty, which as its name suggests was built as a house for some pigs, up on the hillside above Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire. But this is a pigsty built to look like a Greek temple, a rather grand edifice for our porcine friends. Many of the Landmarks are like this; buildings never meant for people to stay in, but now converted to this use – sometimes very cleverly – in order to give them a reason to survive.

The philosophy is pretty simple – they take on places that are interesting or important or just quirky, but that would otherwise be lost. The Banqueting House was one such building, saved at the last minute and carefully restored. A lot of the buildings they own are like this – formal garden buildings, lodge houses, canal lock operators cottages and so on. Sometimes it is a fragment of a much large building such as a castle or monastic building where somehow a part has survived when the rest of the property has been demolished. But what unites most of them is this (for me, really satisfying feeling) of staying in a ‘survivor’, a little bit of heritage that is still in existence despite the odds.

There is also a kind of society of Landmark supporters and ticking them off is a bit of a thing (we’re on 28 different ones to date, all of them unique and memorable for some reason or another). There are a number of Landmark ‘tropes’. First, they are a technology free zone – no TV, no internet access – by deliberate design and choice. They clearly have, at some point, obtained a massive job lot of blue willow patterned style crockery as the supply is always the same – you know what you are getting. The massive box of local attraction leaflets and guide books is added to by anyone who stays… And the log books are a joy to behold, not just ‘we had a nice weekend here’ but veritable essays often accompanied by sketches (or sometimes even rather impressive watercolours).

Sometimes just getting to the place can be difficult – one, Robin Hood’s Hut in Somerset, another former Garden building for an Estate now gone, involves driving down farm tracks and through gates, across a field and through a wood – but that is half the charm. Although getting stuck in the snow last year while travelling to the Warren House above Kimbolton (a combined ‘eyecatcher’ for Kimbolton Castle and once home to the man that protected the warren, a valuable medieval asset) was a little scary – but mediated by the presence of helpful local dog walkers and being only a few 100 yards short of our destination.

Finally, as they are often quite remote, the chances of seeing wildlife is high. One stay in a riverside cottage in the North Cornish hamlet of Coombe not only had bats using the porch next to the kitchen as a hunting roost but allowed a long lingering look at a Water rail in the river – a rarely seen, beautiful bird. And at Gibside, on the morning we left, before the National Trust Estate was open to the public we were treated to the Roe Deer enjoying the mutual peace before melting again into the woods as the visitors started to arrive.

http://www.landmarktrust,org.uk

Slightly Discombobulated

It has been a funny few weeks since New Year, but interesting as well. We have been necessarily a bit distracted by trying to sell my Dad’s house – we finally seem to be getting somewhere it feels, and while I am sad to sell the home in which I grew up in, the alternative is that it sits cold and empty (letting is not really an option) far too far away for me to keep an eye on. So, I would much rather let it become someone else’s home and be warm and full of laughter once more. Aside from the paperwork and stress of that – which the Lovely Wife is an essential aid for me as my head starts to swim when confronted by forms and lists of terms and conditions as the part of my mind that is detail focused throws it hands metaphorically in the air and complains to my dominant big picture brain ‘I don’t get this! Why can’t it be simple?’

I have the same problem with anything to do with tax, but let’s not go there.

Unusually my trips to Brussels for work have started very early (normally they do not get to kick in until February). On the plus side this means getting to travel on nice quiet trains. On the negative, this year in particular it means constant references by continental friends on Brexit, usually with a puzzled expression of ‘what on earth is going on’, my response, usually to be an inappropriate ‘Gallic’ shrug correctly noting that I stopped really trying to predict/work out what was going back in June 2016. I just think that I am prepared to admit it while most of our politicians seem set to posture around spouting nonsense, whichever approach they might propose/pretend they are proposing for their own attempted personal game. Frankly, I’m sick of it, but when people complain about X or Y course will cause some kind of social upheaval… Well, Ladies and Gents, I personally think that that train has already left the station. We are going to have trouble whatever happens now, so we had better get used to it and try to manage it down to at least peaceful protest. Maybe we have gone a bit soft and forget how bad this can get or the power of the mob. I am old enough to remember when the country was beset by riots and it was not that long ago. I am hoping that society has changed enough to avoid that happening now and that we can keep talking without someone throwing petrol bombs, but I am uncomfortably aware of tension increasing. We reap what we sow. And we have been sowing something rotten for some years, now. We may be able to calm things down – indeed we must try, where we can – but I do dread what might be coming.

Still. Some things can make me happy as we continue to bumble towards some sort of divisive end game. A kingfisher in a suburban park – shared with a couple of complete strangers that also spotted a streak of iridescent blue and orange against the gaunt trees (we all agreed it never gets old). A cold, sunny winter day, perfect for a long walk in the country with the Lovely Wife and a chance to discuss the important things. Warm, welcoming pubs with good beer who we can walk into and the people behind the bar do not just smile but are already moving towards the predictable choice of drinks. Examples of good and, very occasionally hilariously bad, parenting behaviours around town. Spending hours discussing the movie you have just seen and finding as much enjoyment in that as in the work itself (‘The Old Man with the Gun’, and ‘Three Identical Strangers’ being two recent cases).

 

And then maybe there is hope itself. I hope that things may turn out as well as is possible at this point and maybe lessons are/will be learned that will make positive changes over the next years.

 

Either that or we’re digging a moat to put the crocodiles in.

Roadshow Revelations – Part Two

Volunteering at an ‘Antiques Roadshow’ day involves a lot of standing around. It is long hard slog for everyone, including people who have brought items to be valued, and it is quite amazing how well behaved and cheerful everyone is considering this.

As a volunteer, mostly what you are about is trying to make sure that people end up where they need to be to get their items valued and in good order. The first thing I learned was, whatever your actual station on the day, knowing where everything else is on the site is crucial as people constantly ask you ‘where are ceramics?’ at which point you smile and point to the banner that is emblazoned ‘Ceramics’ in large friendly letters and invite them to take their place at the back of the (very long) queue. I was stationed at one end of a queue – in my case, for books, maps and manuscripts – and another volunteer was at the other end of the queue to keep people in some sort of order. Additionally, we are there to keep an eye on our expert and ensure he did not faint from dehydration and/or not having any kind of lunch break. Otherwise you just chat to people and try and make them forget just how long they have been waiting (and my queue was probably one of the shortest and fastest moving, more on that later).

If you are coming to one of these things I have some advice to impart.

First, get there early. The queue to get into the site was huge long before the event opened and only tails off very late in the day so best to get there from the off. Accept you will be queuing for hours – you will, I guarantee it – and dress/supply yourself appropriately. Be very thoughtful about what you bring. Try not to bring too many items, as it is a bit like turning up at a book signing cradling every book the author has ever contributed to – yes, they’ll sign them, but possibly through gritted teeth. In particular, try not to bring lots of different items. As you will be waiting in some cases several hours to be seen on the more popular stations (especially ceramics – twice as long as any other queue) your chance of getting your pictures, jewellery and first edition Harry Potter being seen as well as your art deco vase is pretty unlikely so avoid disappoint and chose what you really want to know about and get in that queue straight away.

The surprisingly valuable item is often what people focus on, but in fact the programmes are constructed to have a mix of stories, and in terms of getting on the TV you are more likely to get on because you have something with a lot of human interest behind it, especially if it relates to the site or local area where the product is being filmed. The experts are not just looking for value, but something that is interesting (ideally, as well).

I found it interesting listening to my expert talk about it – and how disappointing it can often be, as they are genuinely, professionally, hoping to turn up something exciting. In the case of books for example, a lot of what they get are old family Bibles (of no interest generally to anyone outside the family), Beatrix Potter (which are a bit like valuing used cars, knowing what edition it is, and its condition, defines quickly the market value). People turn up with boxes of books that they have brought along because they are ‘old’ – which is not really a help. If it is not a First Edition, then it is not going to be worth much. Often, the most interesting things appear too late to be included – for my expert, it was after 5pm when someone turned up with a letter from JRR Tolkien, which sketched out some details of the (yet to be published) Lord of the Rings. But it was too late for them to film. Still, it did mean that my expert left with a smile on his face at something he could get excited about. And generally, despite the heat, waiting and usually crushing when the valuation is well below what you might have hoped or dreamed, most people disappointment left smiling.

Do go to one if you can, take something quirky – and plenty of sandwiches to get you through the waiting. Or even better, be a volunteer and get to wear a natty sash and boater for the day (sadly, you had to give those back).

Roadshow Revelations – Part One,

During a baking hot July day last year (seems an age ago now) I donned my ‘bronze’ (officially that is the colour but the best description I have heard from equally unimpressed volunteers is ‘cat sick’) English Heritage volunteer polo shirt, itself not that unusual event, but not normally early morning and in the middle of the week. The reason for me taking the day off and going up to Wrest Park in Bedfordshire to spend my day trying to avoid sun stroke was to be one of 40 odd other volunteers assisting with the visit of the BBCs ‘Antiques Roadshow’ to the site to record two programmes for the 2019 series. It was a while ago, but as they have now started to show this series it seemed a good point to share a few things about the experience.

First, it is a slick operation. They have four roving teams of cameras and support crew and they are all linked by the producer – no one argues with her, and if anything needs fixing, she’s the one to call. The BBC team and the experts work incredibly hard. The doors open at around nine thirty in the morning, and officially the day ends at 5pm, but the reality is that they are still going at 7pm – largely due to the BBC promise that anyone who turns up with something to be valued before 5 will be seen before they all pack up. This means that the experts are having to look at items all day with perhaps a thirty-minute break to scoff some BBC lasagne and any points where they must film the parts that will be in the actual programme.

If you have ever wondered how and why some items have been brought for valuation – including the ones that seem very fragile or heavy – the explanation is that the owners have been asked to bring them especially. The issue for the BBC is this; they cannot have the film crews just twiddling their thumbs until something interesting turns up, so for the first few hours of the day they will film with people who have been ‘vetted’ in advance of the main day, who the production team have become aware of through various channels including social media. The experts have been out to see what they have and if it fits what the programme is looking for then they are invited to attend at the start of the day to keep the team busy while they hope that the crowds lining up with their bags and boxes are bringing something to surprise and make up the bulk of the programme. Now, next time you watch, try and guess what was arranged and what really did just turn up on the day!

So how does it work normally? When you arrive whatever you bring is briefly assessed by a couple of general experts and you are assigned to the most relevant specific expert area (or areas, depending on what you have brought with you). You then go and join the queue. And wait. And wait.

When eventually the expert can see your item, 99% of the time they will just give you an assessment, and that will be that. But in a few cases, they will identify the item as something of interest, and (sweetly) they write the details on a piece of paper that then goes into a cardboard box at the control point. The bits of paper are reviewed by the production team regularly and after a little more digging will either release the person who brought the item (who have been effectively in a holding pen) as the item does not fit the programme needs, or agree to film, in which case the person who brought the item is sent off to wait and have make up applied and eventually will be called back to film with the expert – this can take several hours. So, you might argue that while it might be nice to find a lost Van Dyck in the loft it is going to take up the rest of your day. This is why there are four filming teams – in the day they need more than enough material to fill two-hour long programmes, which can be a challenge.

And if there is any doubt about the honesty of someone’s surprise regarding value, that is straight enough – when the expert identifies that the item is of interest they will explain why in very general terms and explicitly not mention value – so to find that Aunty Nora’s china dogs are actually worth thousands is usually genuine.

Next week – how to survive the queues and what do they look for. But I leave you this week with the amusing fact that the Antiques Roadshow office at the BBC is next to the one occupied by ‘Countryfile, and apparently there is a fierce rivalry between the two teams on ratings, which conjures in my mind all sorts of shenanigans where Fiona Bruce tries to sabotage Adam Henson’s tractor. Or maybe it is just me.

A Life Well Lived

Well, I’m back. For the moment at least.

As anyone who knows me well, 2018 was a strange year. Many people might find it strange that I do not use words like terrible or sad, as it was the year that I lost my father. But while I do feel a deep sadness – and having just gone through my first Christmas without a parent and with his birthday approaching at the end of the week I feel it particularly at the moment – but there was a lot more to 2018 than the blunt fact that my Dad is not with us anymore.

For a start, it was a year I got to spend more time with Dad than I had in the last 10 years and for the first few months that was pretty good quality time, filled with a lot of laughs and love. We were blessed time and time again; finding him a nursing home within walking distance of where I grew up, right in the heart of the community he and mum had lived in for over 40 years; cared for by people who understood him and cared enough that when he passed away they were genuinely upset. He had a room that suited him, a TV to watch endless episodes of the various versions of NCIS (and believe me, I’ve now seen a lot of those from sitting in with him) and enjoying the childlike delight in consuming far too many sweets then would be good for you – if it mattered, which now it didn’t. Although, typically Dad decided that the only sweets he really wanted were the fruit flavoured travel sweets you get in the small round tins, which for a while I could only find in service stations. Considering how cheeky my Dad could be when he wanted to be, that almost feels deliberate.

As a last few months go, I think I have to admit they went as well as they could. He was comfortable, he knew the garden and house was being well looked after – the Lovely wife and I took time to do that and take in the photographs to prove it, much to his delight. His beloved Newcastle managed to avoid relegation from the Premier League. He picked the winner of the Grand National – for the first time I recall in his life – and spent some of the winnings on chocolates for the Home staff. He liked ‘Dunkirk’ but was less impressed with ‘La La Land’, because that movie’s bittersweet tendencies did not fit with the fact that Dad was a sweet romantic at heart. We regaled him with the adventure that was saving Sméagol the Beagle from the busy road outside the Home after one summer visit to the Home – as a dog lover that one kept him rapt. The routine of walking down to see him, buying the Evening Chronicle on the way, which he hardly ever read, past the last page anyway, was a sustaining one, as was the support we received from two local churches and the staff at the Newfield Inn, where the odd pint of Double Maxim and some ‘porkies’ where a regular reward. The Lovely Wife and I walked all over the North East, letting her see where I came from and giving us plenty to talk about with Dad afterwards.

And when the end came, it came quickly and painlessly. It was on June 21st, a bright sunny day and if you want to pick a day to go, a pretty good choice.  We spent the latter part of that day letting the magic of ducks help with the grief at the WWT site at Washington; a place that has always being precious to me and now has a sad but equally supportive resonance.

So, 2018 was a strange year. But I prefer to focus on the many blessings we received and a gentle ending to an earthly life of someone who had always been devoted to my Mum and I and I think was at peace when the end came.

In the Presence of an Emperor

One of the most entertaining moments I have had recently was down to an insect. Not just any insect, though, something large and colourful – and to its prey, deadly, too. On a warm September afternoon, the Lovely Wife and I stood watching as it hunted, quartering the territory around us as you see large birds of prey do – looking for the moment to grab its prey out of the air and consume it immediately on the wing. It totally ignored us, of course, bar ensuring that it did not actually fly into either of us.

The hunter in question was an Emperor Dragonfly, about 7 cm long, clad beautifully in blue and green, all of which was picked out in the bright sun. Anax Imperator (I admit to looking that up) is a truly impressive sight. It was mostly blue, apparently that makes it likely to have been the male (yes, looked that up too).

The Lovely Wife and I were at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, not far from Ely. The nature reserve, run by the National Trust, includes one of the only fragments of authentic Fen land among a man-made landscape of rich arable farming, droves and waterways. Apparently, it is well known for its dragonflies, and certainly this reputation seemed well earned as we walked along, quickly losing count of the species that seemed to be active. I have always had a soft spot for dragonflies, there is something wonderfully archaic – and for good reasons, similar animals ruled the skies long before the dinosaurs – and yet they are such wonderful aerial acrobats. They are, as you might say, a design classic (and before my biologist friends protest I just mean that, like the original Mini there are cases where something just comes together and perpetuates because, frankly, it’s pretty hard to improve on). They are also terrifying predators, tiny aerial sharks and wo betide any smaller beastie that cannot get out of the way fast enough. They are equally terrifying – if considerably less attractive – in their larval stage. A couple of years I was pond dipping in the garden and fished up a dragonfly nymph – frankly the thing made me nervous, and to them I am this incomprehensible behemoth.

Watching the Emperor trying to catch some of its smaller brethren, I did wonder about the whole concept of scale. It is something I think about every time I, or someone I am with, has their quiet drink in the pub disrupted by a wasp; or the abject terror that some people have of the tiniest spider. To these creatures, even instinctively, we must be too big to compute. To the dragonflies we might as well have been trees, indeed the Lovely Wife joked that since we were standing stock still watching the show, there was every chance that one of the many dragonflies hovering around us might decide were provided a convenient perch (as it happens, we were spared that, this time). But that wasp in the pub is not out to get us – we are just this huge living thing getting in the way, and most of the time they would just ignore us; the real problem is that much of the time we cannot ignore them.

That same day we watched a wasp attempting to prey on honeybees that were intent on their normal work on a flowering bush. Every time the wasp pounced on one of the bees, the intending victim simply dropped to the ground like a stone, effectively getting it away from its attacker. We watched the wasp try again and again, and each time to bees responded in the same way, and then flew back up into the bush to continue their business. Small things can be fascinating, and wasp v bee was another special insect moment.

But it was not a patch on our encounter with the Emperor.

 

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/wicken-fen-nature-reserve

https://british-dragonflies.org.uk/species/emperor-dragonfly